If you haven’t been here recently, it might be hard to actually imagine. But 95% of Harbin’s buildings, and the majority of its infrastructure systems, as well as its forests, gardens, and landscaping, were destroyed by the Valley Fire. We immediately closed Harbin to guests and lost all operating income; and most of our community of resident and locally hired workers lost their homes, posse ssions, jobs, and their ongoing connections to each other and the vast, multi-faceted organization we call Harbin.
How do you come back from something like that? As individuals and as an organization, how do you begin to recover and even think about moving forward amidst such traumatic devastation?
For Harbin and for many of our employees, the California Human Development (CHD) organization has been a lifeline. CHD is one of California’s leading 501(c)(3) organizations, serving residents of 31 California counties. Its mission is to help end cycles of poverty by providing primary support programs, training, and advocacy for: farmworker services and workforce development, affordable housing, disability services, energy efficiency, treatment and recovery, and community services – including disaster relief. It is in this last capacity that CHD, with the help of The Cooperativa de Campesina de California, first came to Lake County after the Valley Fire, and how CHD and Harbin connected.
With no operating income and much of its workforce dispersed, Harbin faced the daunting physical and budgetary challenges of figuring out how to clear thousands of dead trees and other fire debris expeditiously from its extensive acreage. CHD stepped forward with a solution: a program offering a good wage to those made unemployed by the fire and willing to do hard work.
For both Harbin and many of its people, the program has been a tremendous success. Between the spring of 2016, when it began, and the end of this year, when it will end, this CHD program will have assigned more than 60 workers to Harbin, and collectively paid them an estimated $1.4 million. As of this writing, Harbin has 25 active CHD participants in the program, or 45% of Harbin’s overall workforce. These workers are not only clearing dead trees and removing debris, which wouldn’t have happened nearly as quickly without this program; they are also providing needed support to the rebuild teams throughout Harbin, making it possible for all these departments to complete their work more quickly.
About half of these CHD workers have had no previous connection to Harbin. Many of them have been unemployed for long periods of time, including some with limited job skills and work experience. For these people, the CHD program has offered the opportunity for a welcome leg up, with good-paying work, specific job-skills training, and exposure to the same basic workplace trainings that Harbin gives to all its employees (safety and communications). The other half of Harbin’s CHD workers are “Harbin people” who were working here before the fire – and we caught up with a few of them to get their impressions of the CHD program.
Crystal Theoret had been a Harbin resident for six years before the fire. If you visited Harbin during that time, you might have admired her classic flower arrangements at the Warm Pool, or enjoyed her prepared foods and treats at the Market, or relaxed on a massage table under her skilled and gentle hands. Crystal barely escaped the fire in her van – with nothing but her husband, their two-year-old daughter, three cats, and the clothes on their backs; they lost their home, Harbin, and everything else. Initially, they spent some time at the Ananda community; then they wandered, transient, in an RV, parking at several different people’s houses. But nowhere felt like it was where they wanted for their home. “My heart always wanted to come back to Middletown,” she explained. So when CHD’s Harbin program came along, Crystal jumped at the opportunity to return here and participate.
“It felt like my second chance,” she explained. “Because I was so damaged with PTSD from all this loss, filling out job applications and putting myself out there was so hard. But having the chance to come back through CHD and work on the Harbin land really helped.” Crystal worked for six months with several others in the Harbin garden, helping to clean up, maintain, and hand-water virtually the only green area of mainside that survived the fire. “It was an amazing blessing to be on that land again, and help clean it up and guard it. It reconnected me to the community and brought integration – and the hard physical work I was doing felt like giving back.” While she was working in the garden, Crystal was excited to read about and apply for a full-time job in Harbin’s Human Resources department. She got that job, transitioned from CHD back to the Harbin payroll, and as a Harbin employee again became eligible to move into one of Harbin’s few-surviving resident houses; and that’s where she and her family are living now. In all, she said, “The CHD program was a gift.”
Michael Palmer began working at Harbin a few months before the fire, working on the roads crew with heavy equipment. He’s a big, strong guy with gentle eyes, who confides with just a hint of a smile that, “I come across as rougher than I really am.” When the fire came, he and his wife, Nikki (who had been working in Harbin’s Reception department and is now working in Security) and their two high-school-aged children were living in nearby Cobb, where the fire began; fortunately, their house was spared. But Mike lost his Harbin job, and had trouble finding ongoing work at a sustainable wage. The CHD program, he said, gave him both an opportunity to provide for his family, and to come back to Harbin sooner (“I really like working here”). He signed on to the program to do debris cleanup; and because he had specific training and experience, he was offered full-time work when his CHD program ended. Today Mike is Manager of Harbin’s Roads department, supervising a crew of four CHD employees. Their job is to keep the culverts flowing and the roads clear so that workers from all our other departments can get safely in an out – a sometimes daunting task with all the rain and mudslides we’ve had this season. They’re also helping move fire debris to the burn piles right now, before the burn season ends May 1.
As a supervisor of a CHD crew, Mike has seen first-hand multiple benefits of the program. “It’s a good program for people who haven’t had work for a while, or are just starting out. Some of the people they hired were first-time kids who never had a job before. We’ve been able to teach them what to do on a job site – which they wouldn’t have learned otherwise, and will help them when they apply for other jobs after their program ends.” He also pointed out that the program has helped accelerate Harbin’s rebuild. “We wouldn’t be nearly as far along if we didn’t have CHD. With the amount of personnel they gave us, in terms of cleanup and the rebuild, it’s really been helping.”
Ken Gonzales, who had been working in Harbin’s Landscaping and Gardening departments for seven years, lost everything in the fire. “Everything,” he emphasized. “A house, three cars, 66 years of stuff.” For him, CHD was the road back into working and community: “Otherwise I’d probably just be sitting in a chair, rocking.” Ken was the very first Harbin CHD employee, and as such, he pointed out, was able to make life easier for everyone who followed by deftly handling all the hours of initial CHD paperwork. But it was worth it, he said. “I have purpose in my life, and a reason to get up. This program has been a complete benefit in terms of this community: I still feel like I’m a part of it.” Ken’s job is to help restore the garden, and he happily reports that, “It’s starting to look pretty darn good!”
Ken definitely plans to continue to work at Harbin and rebuild his Middletown home. “I just put in plans to the Building department last Friday,” he told us. And when asked if he had anything else to share about the CHD program, he hastened to offer, “I have to thank Governor Brown, who I think of as my employer, for helping the people of Harbin, Middletown, Lake County – for helping the whole area rebuild. CHD is a very important program. It’s a win-win, no doubt. This is what government should be doing all over the country: making roads, not walls.”
And for Harbin, making inroads is exactly what CHD has been doing. Their programs have given opportunities at Harbin to people who haven’t had them before; they have helped Harbin employees and residents get back on their feet and return to our community; and they have helped our land and our entire organization to recoup, recover, and renew. We literally could not have so quickly done everything we have, without CHD’s timely and generous support. For that, and so much more, we are deeply grateful.